Possibly my favourite marathon moment came in my second London Marathon, a mile from a finish which seemed never to get any closer.
I was at my lowest ebb; every step was agony; confusion had long since squeezed out whatever common sense I had left.
Maybe I had got the hydration wrong; maybe it just wasn’t my day. But something was seriously up, and I knew I had to get help from somewhere. Or someone.
And that’s the glory of the London Marathon. There are plenty of people to choose from, hundreds of thousands of them lining the route that takes you to the finish.
My good fortune is that I chose exactly the right person, a little angel of a lad, resplendent in his St John Ambulance uniform, standing on the corner as you turn into Parliament Square.
By now I was in last-resort territory. That resort was to thrust my chest towards randomly-selected bystanders in the hope that they would shout out the name emblazoned across my chest.
And, boy, did I pick the right boy in that ghastly moment.
“Come on, Phil”, he shouted, right in my face, and who knows, that might just have been enough. But the little sweetheart instantly added: “Phil! Phil! You can still win this!”
OK, a little tear still comes to my eye when I think about it ten years later. It was the most absurd thing to say. Completely bonkers. But it was also absolutely the right thing to say. I smiled, I laughed and I floated. New energy in my aching limbs, I made it through that final mile and was still grinning as I crossed the line.
I was sickly blue in the lips, deathly pale in the face, but grinning from ear to ear.
The actual winner had won an hour and a half earlier, but the little boy had been right. In my own terms, I could still win it and I did.
Whenever (not often!) my love of marathons wobbles, I think back to that glorious moment – one which sums up not just the insanity of marathon running, but also its humanity; not just its horrible lows, but also its off-the-top-of-the-scale highs.
That little boy will never know what he did for me that day, but ten years on, this Sunday morning as I stand on the start line at the Tokyo Marathon, I will be thinking of him, cherishing the memory of a moment right up there in the annals of my running history.
Tokyo will be my 26th marathon – and will come at the end of an important week for me. Last Friday, my book Keep On Running was sent off to the printers by the superb team at Summersdale publishing in Chichester (http://www.summersdale.com/book/2/569/keep-on-running/)
Summersdale picked out exactly the right passage from the book for the blurb on the back:
“Marathons make you miserable, but they also give you the most unlikely and the most indescribable pleasures. It’s a world that I love – a world unlocked when you dress up in lycra, put plasters on your nipples and run 26.2 miles in the company of upwards of 30,000 complete strangers.”
And it’s that that makes Tokyo on Sunday so mouth-watering a prospect. It’s a place I fell in love with last October when I joined a group of journalists for a look at the course, courtesy of the Tokyo Marathon Foundation.
Japan is a country which hits you right between the eyes with the most vibrant, the most intoxicating mix of sights and sounds and smells.
Tokyo is a place which grabs you and gets inside you, fast, fascinating and above all friendly – a city built on respect and on the warmest of welcomes.
As guests of the Tokyo Marathon organisation, we were treated with every courtesy by hosts ever eager to please and confident in the knowledge that they have got a rare treasure to reveal: a city which makes you walk taller, lifts the spirits and leaves you drunk on its atmosphere.
Everyone was intent on telling us that Tokyo was safe. I took them at their word, plunging down dark alleys and side streets camera in hand, exploring the bright glitzy neon streets and enjoying unmolested the beautiful tranquillity of an early-morning run.
A self-confessed marathon bore and a veteran of 25 marathons in ten different countries, I like to think I know a good marathon course when I see one: Tokyo’s is a cracker, kicking off outside the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building before heading off through the dazzling night club district.
Then it reaches the perimeter of the Imperial Palace Gardens before heading for Ginza, Japan’s number-one high-end shopping district. After that you plunge into the old town before wending your way to the finish at Tokyo Big Sight – a challenging course, but an excellent one, very much created with the sights in mind but also one geared towards the runners themselves, as its impressive 97 per cent finishing rate suggests.
So, I beg of you, dear reader: be my little boy this weekend.
The marathon starts at 9.10 on Sunday morning, which is ten past midnight UK time.
If any of you happen to be awake at that time and at any time in the next few hours, shout out (or even mutter into your pillow): ““Phil! Phil! You can still win this!”
I promise you that it will make the world of difference to me half a world away…